Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: increasing dramatic tension

Image courtesy of Rune E.’s generosity via Flickr Creative Commons

Ah personal vows. I’m big on those and one core vow I made several years ago was to seek out the best of the best. Locate talent, nurture it, then share it with you guys. I’m passionate about mastery. Mastery however requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice is we cannot do all things. We need to let go. Knowing that, I made it my personal mission (and my company W.A.N.A. International’s mission) to recruit those who were masters of THEIR realms.

My motto? If I am the smartest person in the room, I’ve done something horribly wrong.

Many of you have already had the pleasure of taking a class with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds. If not? She has a whole list of classes coming up (listed below). Today, however, another master is here to share her gifts with us today.

Lisa Hall-Wilson is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the honor to work with. She taught me Facebook 😀 . But she’s also an unbelievable craft teacher so I’m handing today’s post over to her for an amazing lesson about the power of vows….


The beautiful image courtesy of the generous Candida.Performa via Flickr Creative Commons

Want to raise the stakes for your character through internal conflict? Deep POV is a great technique to bring out this tension because it allows the reader deep into the character’s psyche and allows for an intense examination of their motivations and morals.

Drawing a line in the sand, giving your character a personal vow, can create the kind of inner turmoil that drives a character to outrageous page-turning decisions and mistakes. Vows also give insight into backstory and help define character voice.

I love that scene from the Fellowship Of The Ring where Gandalf screams at the Balrog: “You shall not pass!” Awesome. That was a game changer scene, it ratcheted up the conflict several notches. Gandalf went to the ultimate extreme to make sure that Balrog did not pursue the rest of the Fellowship.

Does your main character have a line in the sand, a personal boundary past which they will not cross? Great!

Now go shove them off the cliff.

*Note: Not every character does or should have a personal vow. It adds a layer of complexity that requires skill with characterization to pull off well because a vow should influence a character’s motivations and morals, but it’s rarely their main story goal.*

Ever whispered a vow in the dark of the night, tears streaming down your cheeks? Maybe you were caught in the middle of a messy divorce. Maybe you experienced a trauma of some sort, the kind that haunts you – and down deep inside you made yourself a promise so that hurt never happens again:

I will never…

Image via Ryan Vaarsi’s generosity courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Everyone has a line in the sand, a secret vow. No matter what else happens, this is one inviolable line they will not cross. Most people, at some point, make several of these vows, some innocuous, some more serious.

Some people make these vows consciously and others are completely unaware of these personal vows. We are more committed to some vows than others. Some vows are made to prevent a past hurt or harm from being repeated (I’ll never date a drug lord again), and some vows are harmful and need to go (I will never weigh over 100 pounds).

Pushed Beyond All Limits

Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter novel Blue Moon uses a really great personal vow as a story element. Anita Blake has several rules or lines in the sand which have been firmly established in previous books in the series, but she is forced to violate one rule after another. It started off innocently enough, Blake is uncomfortable, she’s not happy, but she can shake it off.

As the novel continues, Blake faces escalating circumstances. Some of her compromises haunt her, change her (and not always for the better) and she has to figure out how to live with that. Blake ends up back-tracking and…well, go read it. I couldn’t put it down.

But the reverse can also work.

I loved the movie Law Abiding Citizen with Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx. At the beginning of the movie, Foxx’s lawyer character comes across as a good guy, but someone willing to cut corners to achieve what he saw as the greater good. Butler’s character creatively, and rather gruesomely, pushes Foxx to the point where he has to dig in and say here and no farther.

By the end of the movie, Foxx sees the problem with cutting certain corners and draws a line in the sand: I will never make a deal with a murderer ever again.


Image courtesy of Joana Coccarelli’s generosity via Flickr Creative Commons

Vows are hard to pull off in simple plots. These lines in the sand are often in addition to a character’s main goal in the story. For instance, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind vows: “As God is my witness, I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over I’ll never be hungry again…” Scarlett’s conscious goal for the story though is to be with Ashley Wilkes. *shakes head – never understood that* That’s what she schemes for, dreams about, etc.

Her unconscious goal is to have the love of a man who can make her feel secure (ahh – see the built-in tension there when what she’s pursuing won’t get her what she really wants). She isn’t even aware of this internal conflict until the end of the book when Ashley finally becomes available and she realizes it’s actually Rhett she wants. Rhett Butler is the one who makes her feel secure (she talks about how he comforts her in the night after a bad dream, etc), but now Rhett’s gone.

However, Scarlett never went hungry again. Her preoccupation with money caused a lot of problems for her, because she confused money with security. It’s easy to see how that vow added tension and conflict for her character.

The Writer’s Dilemma

Image courtesy of the generosity of Benbenben11 via Flckr Creative Commons

The problem with this story element is that a reader might lose respect if a character breaks ALL of their personal vows. For a character to remain worth cheering for, if a line in the sand has been defined, at some point the character has to stand their ground no matter what it costs them.

There may be gray areas of their vow they compromise on, there may be some backtracking. They may make a vow part way through the story as Scarlett does. Maybe the character needs to give up a harmful or unrealistic vow. Regardless, these vows strongly influence the character’s motivations and desires heading into the big main conflict. If they don’t, I’d question whether they need to be there.

Personal vows are one way to add compelling conflict, but it requires an intensely personal POV.

I’m teaching a two-week intensive on Method Acting For Writers: Learn How To Write Deep POV starting August 1st. This is just one appendix lesson from that class. I’m offering a WANA-only price for this course.

What are some of your favorite literary vows or lines in the sand?

I’m also teaching a class on Facebook, so you can learn what to post so readers respond on July 22 and a new class on September 9 on creating strong female characters. Check out those classes!



Talk to us! We love hearing from you. Well, I do, namely because I am lonely and y’all are seriously interesting. What vows have you made? Good or bad or dumb?

I’ve done all of the above, and have particularly excelled in bad and dumb vows (but I’m much better now 🙂 ). Seriously, I think one of my greatest strengths is I am loyal, but sometimes being loyal is just being epically stupid when you’re loyal to the wrong people, ideas, goals etc.

For instance, I vowed I wouldn’t give up on my first novel. Took 5 years to see I actually didn’t even HAVE a novel so that was a seriously stupid vow. Remember what I always tell you guys, Persistence looks a lot like stupid. Sometimes it IS hard to tell.

And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY!

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).


Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.



Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sodanie Chea
Original image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sodanie Chea

I read a TON of fiction no only for pleasure, but for work. I’ve been blessed to help countless writers diagnose what’s going wrong in their fiction. The good news is that Occam’s Razor applies even to fiction that is fizzling…meaning sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one.

Often we think we need to invent a story never told, or create some mind-blowing twist-ending never before witnessed. But, while those are cool things to strive for, they aren’t necessary and can even backfire.

Truth is, there are only so many plots and if we get too weird, then readers have no basis for comparison and it’s such a mental jump that the story won’t resonate. I use my blue steak example.

Steak is wonderful and there are countless creative ways to prepare it, but if we get too weird for the sake of being different, it will make the reader lose her appetite.

BLUE STEAK. But look how CLEVER it is! Really, it's YUMMY.
BLUE STEAK. But look how CLEVER it is! Really, it’s YUMMY.

Twist-endings can have the same effect. Recently, I read a thriller by a mega-author and the book had me positively entranced. The author had created one of the most frightening killers I’d ever seen. I am an avid fan of Discovery ID and read countless true crime works and probably own every profiling book out there. To create a killer that rattled me? Pretty big deal.

So I am inhaling this book and then the ending?

I would have tossed the book across the room, except I was listening to it on my phone and really didn’t want to buy a new phone. The author actually would have had a way better ending had he not tried to be clever. I wasn’t buying the twist and it ticked me off more than a little.

When I think of some of my favorite fiction, I think of what they do well. I dog-ear and color my books. I actively study what writers do well and when a story goes sideways, I go back and try to diagnose what went wrong where so I can learn (and pass this on to you guys).

Thus, today I want to share three simple things you can check for if you have a plot that just seems to be flatter than a week-old Coke.

There MUST Be an Active Goal

Whenever I teach my log-line class, this is one of the things I am looking for when a writer is describing his work. Getting a writer to articulate what her story is about in ONE sentence is highly useful, especially when diagnosing a problem. One of my all-time favorite plotting books is Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Brooks breaks plots into three elements.

In Act One the protagonist is usually in the dark. Something life-altering has happened but the protagonist is kind of swinging blindly or avoiding conflict altogether (Running). Act Two, the protagonist becomes aware there is a problem and begins pushing back (Warrior). Then we have the false victory and darkest moment and then the protagonist undergoes a transformation.

Act Three is when the protagonist transforms. Anyone else would have said, “Screw it” and gone home, but the protagonist presses on to solve the core story problem (Hero).

Often when I see log-lines that involve passive goals like “avoid” or “evade” or “hide” that is only part of the story. There is an incomplete plot. No protagonist can rise to become a hero by avoidance. Any plot that simply involves a character trying to stay away from something is only partway there.

While it is completely okay to begin with a passive goal, the story cannot remain there.

The protagonist must face the life-altering force (antagonist) in order to rise to become a hero. Even in literary fiction, the protagonist must face the existential enemy and come out on top.

For instance, in The Road the enemy is man’s animal nature. When faced with imminent death which will triumph? Humanity or baseness? If the Man and Boy reach the ocean by snacking on other humans, they fail.

Unlike a genre fiction, there is no Big Boss Battle with a terrorist organization, a mad scientist, a serial killer or monster. And yes, in literary fiction the antagonist can be more of an intangible, but that doesn’t mean there is no showdown. There has to be or there is no transformation/triumph and transformation/triumph is the entire point of fiction.


Image via Dupo-x-y courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.
Image via Dupo-x-y courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

What will happen if your protagonist fails? The bigger the stakes and the consequences, the better the story. This is true in life and more so in fiction (since fiction is the bouillon of life).

Case in Point

I’m a huge fan of horror. When the remake of Poltergeist came out I couldn’t wait for it to come to video (since I prefer watching movies at home). What really surprised me was that Poltergeist was such a cool story to remake and yet? The movie got terrible reviews. I didn’t read them because I didn’t want to be biased, but two stars?


So I watched the movie and yeah…it sucked. I wasn’t quite certain why so I rented the original Poltergeist to compare. Maybe I was just being biased?


Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 10.17.48 AM

The problem with the second Poltergeist had to do with the stakes and the consequences. See, in the original, the Freeling family is living the American Dream. They have an amazing house in a new tract home development, a development that offered many luxuries to a more working class section of society.

Steve Freeling is passionate about his development and his enthusiasm shows in his sales numbers. In fact, his bosses are SO impressed that he is offered a prime spot in the next phase of building, on a hill overlooking the development where he currently resides.

Diane Freeling is a stay-at-home mom with fantastic kids and life is not only good, it is simply getting better and better.

Until the poltergeists start disrupting their lives.

The story is so disturbing simply because this is a really likable family living a dream that becomes a nightmare. When they find out their home is built on a cemetery and no one bothered moving the bodies, it is a profound violation.

Contrast this with the new-and-not-so-improved remake.

The Griffin family isn’t living a dream at all. Eric Griffin was laid off. He’s desperate and erratic. They didn’t buy a dream home, they bought the only house they could afford because they’re broke and all their credit cards are maxed out. Eric and Amy (unlike the Freelings) are already teetering on divorce in the beginning of the story.

Thus, what the poltergeists disrupt was already cracked and failing anyway. Since there was no ideal marriage, perfect family and American Dream on the line?


To find out the crappy house you moved into only because you could afford it is built on an old cemetery is not nearly as disruptive as realizing all your hopes, dreams and future are tainted.

Plot Stakes and Personal Stakes Are Bound Together

Also remember that there are two lines of stakes—plot and character. Both act as cogs, one turning the other. The protagonist should be arcing and that personal arc is critical for confronting the problem and winning.

In Winter’s Bone there is the land that is at stake, but Rhee is also risking her personal identity. In the beginning, she is loyal to the patriarchal family structure. She keeps her head down and avoids confrontation. But the plot problem puts her in the crosshairs of choosing the larger family structure with the nuclear family. She must defy the unwritten laws of the hillbilly culture in order to save her mother and siblings.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 10.18.42 AM

She is not only gambling her own life to find what happened to her father, she is risking the lives of her own immediate family. Her very self-identity and where she fits is on the line.


Stakes and consequences are ultimately tethered to urgency. In genre fiction, this is a bit more straight-forward. In The Black Echo Harry Bosch must uncover who killed tunnel rat and Vietnam buddy Meadows before the second heist is completed and the killers disappear forever.

In Winter’s Bone, Ree Dolly must find proof her father is dead before the bondsman takes the family land and renders them all homeless.

Even if the antagonist is not so flesh-and-blood (I.e. addiction) there needs to be some kind of a ticking clock. The protagonist doesn’t just have forever to get sober. There is some outside pressure that gives a timeline and if the protagonist doesn’t meet the timeline, she fails.

The shorter the timeline, the greater the tension. If loan sharks tell you you have the next ten years to come up with $10,000 that sucks, but is doable. But what if they give you three days?

Combine the Three for MAX Effect

Image courtesy of Iwan Gabovich via Flickr Creative Commons.
Image courtesy of Iwan Gabovich via Flickr Creative Commons.

Notice how all three of these elements dovetail into one another. In order to have stakes or a timeline, there has to be an ACTIVE goal. Then once you find that active goal, make the stakes as high as you can…then try harder. Remember that risk and reward are joined at the hip.

The more the reader is aware of what is at stake, the tighter we can wind the tension. Remember that fiction is the path of greatest resistance.

If the reader knows that Mount Doom is the destination and that Middle Earth will be plunged into darkness and despair if the Ring of Power is not destroyed…then every misstep, every mistake, every setback is enough to shred our nerves.

Additionally when you (the writer) are aware of the ultimate goal and the stakes and consequences, then it is far easier for you to generate dramatic tension instead of simply inserting bad situations.

Go over your plot and if it isn’t where you want it to be, try using these three elements as a checklist. Is the goal active? Do you only have a partially formed plot? Are the stakes high enough? Could they be bigger? Can you up the timeline and make the protagonist (and the reader) sweat?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

Upcoming Classes!

Back by popular demand! Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Beyond craft and to the business of our business?

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook